Sunday, June 19, 2011

Jensen v. Jones

This week, the Utah Supreme Court issued its opinion in the case of Jensen v. Jones (formerly known as Hamblin v. Olds and Hamblin v. Clayton). The question answered by the Court was whether the State Engineer can declare forfeiture of a water right as the basis for denying a change application.

The underlying facts of the case are that Ms. Hamblin owned a water right from Spring Creek, a tributary to the Provo River. Ms. Hamblin filed a change application, seeking to move the water right to wells in Highland City. The State Engineer rejected the change application based on his determination that the water right had not been used for over 20 years. Ms. Hamblin filed a petition for judicial review with the district court. The district court upheld the State Engineer's rejection of the change application, concluding that the water right had been automatically lost to forfeiture long before the change application was filed. The district court also held that recent changes to Utah's forfeiture statute--which require court action before a water right is adjudicated forfeited--did not apply retroactively.

The district court's decision was then appealed to the Utah Supreme Court. Ms. Hamblin argued (1) that the State Engineer lacks the authority in the context of a change application to determine that a forfeiture has occurred; and (2) that the water right was not forfeited because there has been no judicial determination of forfeiture. On the other side, the State Engineer argued that the water right had been forfeited automatically many years ago due to nonuse and that the amendments to Utah's forfeiture statute were not retroactive. The Court ultimately agreed with Ms. Hamblin's argument that the State Engineer cannot consider non-adjudicated forfeiture when reviewing a change application, and therefore did not answer the question of whether the amendments to the forfeiture statute apply retroactively.

The Court noted that the State Engineer is an executive officer tasked with administering and supervising the appropriation of water in the state, and that he acts in an administrative capacity only and has no authority to adjudicate water rights. The Court also noted that in the context of evaluating a change application, the State Engineer is limited to applying the criteria contained in Utah Code section 73-3-8, which do not include forfeiture. Further, the Court noted that in previous cases, the State Engineer had conceded that a forfeiture determination was beyond the State Engineer's authority in approving or rejecting a change application. In sum, the Court concluded that the State Engineer exceeded his authority by rejecting Ms. Hamblin's change application on a determination of forfeiture, and therefore reversed the district court's affirmance of the State Engineer's rejection.

It is important to note that the Supreme Court did not determine whether Ms. Hamblin's water right has or has not been forfeited, as it was beyond the scope of the appeal.

To read the full text of the Supreme Court's opinion, click here.

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